Blog Political Science and Public Administration

Raquel Gallego and Joan Subirats (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)


Has decentralization in Spain led to welfare inequities across regions? And do citizens’ perceptions on that fit data? This study provides evidence of the emergence of different regional welfare regimes, which, however, have coexisted with a common structure of social benefits and rights for the whole country. The existing differences in regional welfare policies do not decisively affect this common base, although they do express different priorities or sensitivities and, in many cases, have managed to generate significant processes of innovation, diffusion and learning. Even though the data available also show a strong redistribution effect of central government policies, citizens tend to perceive that inequities between territories are increasing.


The article analyzes how devolution has resulted in different welfare policy options taken by the governments of the 17 Autonomous Communities (ACs) over the past three decades. The study reviews quantitative and qualitative data on the policies that ACs have pursued in health, education and social services within their self-government capacities. For each of these three policy sectors, the analysis identifies similarities and differences between ACs in terms of three dimensions: normative principles (discursive justification through their legislation), substantive options (needs or demands covered, and extension and intensity of coverage), and operational options (governance and management models of service provision). The result is a classification of ACs, in each policy sector, according to the degree of differentiation/innovation (high, medium, low) in relation to the Spanish central government policies. It appears that the ACs that have been among the first to develop their own policies, have tended to pursue differentiated policy options with respect to central government regulations. Also, path dependency is particularly relevant for explaining policy divergence on the operational dimension; while the discursive dimension shows clear evidence of both diffusion and convergence processes.


The article also relies on data from previous, wider research by the authors (2011), on discussion groups held in all the ACs, to analyze the divergence between citizens’ perceptions of the impact of devolution on territorial equity and the existing data on such impact. The prevailing belief is that everybody is now better than before, but that the traditionally most developed territories have developed better and more complete social protections systems for their populations. The population would still like greater autonomy for their regional governments, but at the same time they fear the consequences that this would produce. 


As the debate on the impact of decentralization on inequities grows richer and complex since the onset of the current economic crisis, it seems advisable to help generate greater transparency in this scenario, enabling cross-learning opportunities and capacity for emulation and innovation among different ACs.


View full text at:

Raquel Gallego and Joan Subirats (2012) “Spanish and Regional Welfare Systems: Policy Innovation and Multi-level Governance”, Regional and Federal Studies, 22(3):269-288.